Walk This Way
A philosopher explores the ambulatory arts. Scott McLemee rambles on.
In December, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper called "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain," based on a study conducted at Emory University. The researchers did MRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students over a period of days before, during, and after they read a best-selling historical page-turner called Pompeii over the course of nine evenings. A significant increase of activity in "the left angular supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri" occurred during the novel-reading phase of the experiment, which fell off rapidly once they finished the book -- the gyri being, the report explained, regions of the brain "associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."
Not a big surprise; you'd figure as much. But the researchers also found that an elevated level of activity continued in the bilateral somatosensory cortex for some time after the subjects were done reading. In the novel, a young Roman aqueduct engineer visiting the ancient vacation resort of Pompeii "soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." Presumably the readers had identified with the protagonist, and parts of their brains were still running away from the volcano for up to five days after they finished the book.
So one might construe the findings, anyway. The authors are more cautious. But they raise the question of whether the experience of reading novels "is sufficiently powerful to cause a detectable reorganization of cortical networks" -- what they call a "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration." Or to put it another way, a long-term rearrangement of the mind's furniture.
It isn't a work of fiction, and I am but a solitary reader without so much as access to an electroencephalograph, but A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, a French best-seller from 2011 just published in English by Verso, seems to have been setting up its own "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration" within my head over the past few days. Maybe it's the weather. After so many months of cold weather and leaden skies, Gros's evocation of the pleasures of being outside, moving freely, in no particular hurry, stirs something deep within.
The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, has, among other things, edited volumes in the posthumous edition of Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France. But the authority Gros brings to his reflections on walking comes only in part from knowing the lives and writings of ambulatory thinkers across the millennia, beginning in ancient Greece. He is a scholar but also a connoisseur -- someone who has hiked and wandered enough in his time, over a sufficient variety of terrains, to know at first hand the range of moods (ecstasy, monotony, exhaustion) that go with long walks.
It is a work of advocacy, and of propaganda against sedentary thinking. The first of Gros's biographical essays is on Nietzsche, who took up walking in the open air while suffering from migraine headaches, eyestrain, and late-night vomiting spasms. It did not cure him, but it did transform him. He might be the one spending time at health resorts, but it was contemporary intellectual life that manifested invalidism.
"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books," Nietzsche wrote. "It is our habit to think outdoors -- walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or of a musical composition, are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?" Long, solitary hikes such as those taken by Nietzsche -- and also by Rousseau, the subject of another essay -- are only one mode of philosophical pedestrianism. The precisely timed daily constitutional that Kant took each day, so regular that his neighbors could set their watches by it, has gone down in history as an example of his extreme rigor (one easily recognized even by the layman who can't tell his an a posteriori from his elbow). Gros adds a telling detail to this otherwise commonplace biographical fact: Kant took care to walk at a measured, even pace, since he was profoundly averse to sweating.
At the other extreme was the ancient philosophical school known as the Cynics, with its cultivation of an almost violent indifference to comfort and propriety. The Cynics were homeless vagrants on principle. They denied themselves, as much as possible, every luxury, or even convenience, taken for granted by their fellow Greeks.
That included footwear: "They had done so much walking," Gros says, "that they hardly needed shoes or even sandals, the soles of their feet being much like leather." When the Cynics showed up in a town square, their constant exposure to nature's elements gave a jagged edge to the harangues in which they attacked commonplace ideas and values. Gros sees walking, then, as the foundation of the Cynics' philosophical method:
"Philosophers of the type one might call sedentary enjoy contrasting the appearance with the essence of things. Behind the curtain of tangible sights, behind the veil of visibilities, they try to identify what is pure and essential, hoping perhaps to display, above the colors of the world, the glittering, timeless transparency of their own thought…. The Cynic cut through that classic opposition. He was not out to seek or reconstruct some truth behind appearances. He would flush it out from the radical nature of immanence: just below the world's images, he was searching for what supported them. The elemental: nothing true but sun, wind, earth and sky; their truth residing in their unsurpassable vigor."
Walking is not a sport, Gros takes care to emphasize. You don't need any equipment (not even shoes, for an old-school Cynic) nor is any instruction required. The skill set is extremely limited and mastered by most people in infancy. Its practice is noncompetitive.
But in a paradox that gives the book much of its force, we don't all do it equally well. It's not just that some of us are clumsy or susceptible to blisters. Gros contrasts the experience of a group of people talking to one another while marching their way through a walking tour (an example of goal-driven and efficiency-minded behavior) and the unhurried pace of someone for whom the walk has become an end in itself, a point of access to the sublimely ordinary. And so he has been able to give the matter a lot of thought:
"Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer drawn from its inertia the vague vertigo in an endless spiral.… The body's monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one's disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape."
As for the clumsiness and blisters, I hope they will disappear soon. It's the practice of walking, not reading about it, that makes all the difference. But no book has rewired my bilateral somatosensory cortex so thoroughly in a long while.
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